At the conclusion of Wednesday night’s Beowulf presentation at the now thankfully concluded 2007 San Diego Comic Con, I muttered to Devin and Russ that any 2-D trailer of Robert Zemeckis’s picture would almost surely be negatively received. By the time we got back to our hotel room (at the rather advanced hour of 4:30 AM), a truncated trailer had appeared, and the movie was already being compared to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (the deserved standard bearer of bad photoreal animation).
I was at once frustrated and completely unsurprised. Are there dead eyes and unnatural movements to be found in Beowulf? Absolutely. Performance capture technology is not yet flawless; rapid movement, particularly Ray Winstone’s grandiose sawing of the air, reads distractingly false to the eye. This is a kink that must (and will) be worked out. And if you want to make a case for the CG-enhanced human gaze, "Anthony Hopkins looks great" is a lousy Exhibit A; we’ve essentially been watching a CG Hopkins since the late 1990s.
But Beowulf is not meant to be seen flat. Ever. Every shot has been inventively enhanced to immerse the viewer in the world of one of the oldest stories written in the English language. Though I definitely have my gripes with Zemeckis’s approach, I will never deny his visual mastery, which is positively on-point here. You can truly get lost in the world of Beowulf; if Hitchcock had lived to use this new 3-D technolocy, I’m certain he would’ve composed like Zemeckis (probably because Zemeckis composes like Hitchcock in general, but whatever).
But this is not your traditional, English-class version of Beowulf. In the hands of Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (a mismatched comedy duo waiting to happen, though the transcript doesn’t do their dynamic justice), it’s an epic reinvigorated by two men who asked the question: "What if Beowulf was an unreliable narrator?" They also take great pains to explain the uniqueness of what you saw online last week. Until you see Beowulf in 3-D, you can’t possibly pass judgment on the experience of watching it.
The following is a roundtable interview.
Q: My recollection of reading Beowulf in college–
Avary: Your recollection is wrong!
Q: There wasn’t any naked woman trying to seduce Beowulf, was there?
Gaiman: What we did when we decided to write this is that we had our theory, and our theory was that at any point where the poem tells you what happened, it’s telling the truth. But at any point when somebody in the poem goes offstage, and then comes back on and says, "While I was in the other room, this is what happened"… they could be lying.
Avary: Let me ask you–
Gaiman: Beowulf takes off after Grendel’s mother, he disappears for eight days, comes back looking rather exhausted with Grendel’s head–
Avary: Had he already killed Grendel, why would he not return with the mother’s head?
Gaiman: And we just started going, "This is very unreliable." It’s the concept of the unreliable narrator. So we liked the idea that… people can lie. Especially in these wonderful sagas where people are forever standing up and going, "I am Beowulf, and this is just what I did! I killed the mighty beast, and I killed the evil hag!" We had enormous fun doing that, and still trying to play fair as if it was some kind of peculiar game that we were going to be playing with English professors all around the world.
Avary: Until the end of time.
Q: Did I recognize some actual Anglo-Saxon dialogue in there?
Gaiman: You did! Crispin Glover as Grendel is actually talking in Old English. All of his dialogue is Old English. We had an Old English professor… a young Old English professor on the set. I’d be sitting there watching them shoot, and Crispin would be saying "[Old English dialogue that I dare not translate]", and the professor would run over and say, "It’s not [incorrect pronunciation], it’s [correct pronunciation]."
Avary: It was a very delicate balance to make sure that it was at least sixty-percent understandable so that you could deduce the other forty percent.
Gaiman: We had to pick words that had aged into English. But we also had the device of Grendel’s mother speak, although in an Old English accent, that she’s speaking something more modern. It’s that Clockwork Orange effect; after a while, you understand it.
Q: What we saw last night was in 3-D, and it was spectacular. But my first worry was "They’re going to show this in 2-D online, and the geeks are going to come out and go ‘What’s so special about this?’". Sure enough, the trailer went up last night, and people seem to be confused as to what they’re looking at. And I wonder if you guys, or even Zemeckis, have wondered how you might better present this?
Gaiman: We’re in a weird universe in which what we’re trying to give people is a reason to go to the cinema. We’re actually trying to give people an experience they cannot get from their iPods. And if you download the Beowulf trailer onto your iPod, you may be getting something where you’re going, "Well, it’s just like a computer game, but better".
Avary: In a postage stamp sized trailer, which was the only one I could download.
Gaiman: Sitting there looking at it in 3-D, it’s an immersive experience. To be honest, I think what will happen is that people will sell it to each other. Once people start to see it in 3-D, they will be phoning their friends who said "Well, I saw Beowulf, and why aren’t they doing it with live actors", and saying, "Fuck that, just come along; you’ve got to see this. You haven’t seen this thing before."
Avary: If I showed you an original Cinerama production on T.V., it would suffer.
Gaiman: It would die. That’s the weird problem. You’re picking bits of film–
Avary: It’s difficult to get it across. However, I do think Neil’s right: the word will spread.
Q: I have a Stardust question. Having seen the film and really liking it, I just wonder how you can possibly market it.
Gaiman: It’s weird. I was talking to one of the big Paramount bosses early on today, and he was said, "Well, we’re now just about to go up with the next round of Stardust marketing because the advance reviews are in that say, ‘You’ve never seen anything like this!’, ‘This will be the movie of the summer’, and ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing!’". They’re going out with that now because the truth is we have no idea how to market it. We made a movie that is special and lovely. People see it, and they feel happy: it’s funny and it’s romantic and all of that shit. And I have no idea–
Q: You’re a victim of your own complexity really.
Gaiman: I don’t know if you’re a victim of complexity. You’re a victim of the fact that you’re trying somehow to… people who tell me that that is an awful trailer, I say, "You should’ve seen the others." I’ve seen the trailer that looks like the story of three witches.
Q: Not having seen the film, the trailer makes it seem like a Princess Bride type of thing.
Gaiman: Whatever genre of film that The Princess Bride was in and has sat alone in for the last twenty years, Stardust is now in that genre, too. There are now just two of them: rom-com fantasy adventures that will be beloved, that people will remember, that people will quote lines from. But that doesn’t make them any more like each other than Frankenstein was like Dracula; they just belong in the same box, whatever that is.
Q: Is Beowulf going to be an easy sell in non-English speaking countries?
Gaiman: I think so. What was really interesting is that we wound up paying the price against the fact that people, particularly in America, have studied Beowulf. It’s like everybody was inoculated against Beowulf. When you say to people, "It’s Beowulf!", they don’t look happy. They go, "Oh, fuck!" And they remember some term paper, and trying to study Old English. But we talked to people at the studio, and they said, "Well, I finally took the script home with me, and it’s a great story!" I don’t care what nationality you are; I think the story is a really good story.
Avary: But it’s really going to play in Denmark, let me tell you!
Gaiman: Both of the Danes are going to see it.
Avary: That’s all we care about: that huge Denmark market.
Gaiman: The Swedes, on the other hand, are never going to forgive us for not going back to Sweden.
Q: Using the method of making up the story out of the unseen stuff, that means you could make other Beowulf movies.
Gaiman: I don’t think we do another Beowulf, because the joy of Beowulf is he dies in the end. I think we can say that without fear of spoilers. (Laughter) Every now and then we’d joked–
Avary: There’s always Beowulf: The Early Years, Neil.
Gaiman: Yes, but we joked about doing Gilgamesh, taking the old Babylonian epic of man’s quest for immortality and putting Angelina Jolie in it and having her take her kit off, because, frankly, I think that could be really good. She could play one of the goddesses, or, frankly, she could play the whole thing.
Q: Could you talk about making Grendel’s mother a high-heeled demon?
Gaiman: Isn’t that wonderful? It’s actually her foot. It’s like a bird foot, and that’s her flaw.
Avary: That’s the Zemeckis fetish.
Gaiman: That was definitely Bob. We just saw that and went–
Avary: I proudly point to Bob.
Q: Having an unreliable narrator fascinates me. I’ve never heard that theory with regards to Beowulf.
Avary: You have to ask yourself. There are a lot of questions. For example, Grendel is described as half-man, half-demon. The mother is described as a water demon. So who’s Grendel’s father? Grendel’s always dragging men off alive to the cave? Why? Why is he never attacking Hrothgar? They make a point of saying in the original text that he’s always tormenting Hrothgar. This really started raising questions about who is Grendel’s father? And if Hrothgar is Grendel’s father, then what happens to Beowulf when he goes into that cave? Did he kill the monster? Did he kill Grendel’s mother? Or did he make a pact with the demon? It was those kinds of questions that allowed us to explore deeper into the myth, and in a way that I don’t think bastardizes the original myth; I think it actually is a deeper examination of it.
Gaiman: Put it this way: I think that an English teacher with a recalcitrant class that doesn’t think Beowulf is interesting could take them to see [our] Beowulf; they could think it’s interesting, and then sit around arguing about the bits that we changed. But they would still have the core of Beowulf there, and that’s important.
Q: But are you expecting any hate mail from English professors?
Gaiman: Yes. Definitely. I know that we will get it in quantity because if you think comics nerds can be obsessive, if you think comics people can go, "Excuse me, Jimmy Olsen’s bow tie is traditionally green with red spots, and you’re doing blue and yellow here, and you’ve just sort of betrayed the Superman mythos." Given that they can do that, you just wait until you encounter the Anglo-Saxon nerds. When it was first announced that I was working with Roger on Beowulf, I got things coming in on my website that would begin, "I have written an essay on the Battle of Finnesburh as mentioned in Line 152, and I trust that you will read my essay, and, in your film, you will follow my theory and not that of Professor Wickham." And you’re going, "Oh, my God! You people are obsessive on a level that makes comics fans look easygoing!" It’s astonishing.
Avary: I think the letter I would write back to them is "How do you think Beowulf changed from those several hundred years before it was actually put to paper by Christian monks, who added a number of Christianity elements to the myth?" Beowulf is something that has been handed down from storyteller to storyteller to modify and change over history.
Gaiman: What’s great is that we’re just another couple of storytellers telling that story.
Avary: And being as true as possible to the material. And, I think, looking deeper into the material.
Q: Having watched you two last night and on the panel today, do you work on your timing? You guys have some kind of geek Elaine May and Mike Nichols thing going on. You guys should do a show.
Gaiman: This is one of the reasons we can write together. Roger goes "Blahblahblahblahblahblahblah", and I go, "Well, actually, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’" And Roger goes (repeat arore-transcribed sequence). It works because there are things in which we’re so similar, and there are things in which we’re so different. And somehow that makes us a comfortable writing team.
Avary: Like chocolate and peanut butter, we’re two great tastes that taste great together.
Gaiman: And also we subscribe to the fiction that Roger actually wrote some of Beowulf, and was not passed out dead drunk on the floor. Let’s put it this way: one of us actually wrote the script; one of us contractually wrote the script. But we’re not going to say which one.
Q: I thought you were going to say he was passed out drunk, woke up, and it was just written – kind of like and "Stairway to Heaven".
Avary: (Laughing) Yeah. "Whoa! What happened!"
Gaiman: I told him elves brought it, and he still believes me. (Laughter)
Q: What we saw last night was pretty violent and risque. Did you consciously write it for a PG-13 rating?
Avary: We polished it for a PG-13 rating.
Gaiman: We wrote it as the story not caring if we were R, NC-17 or unrated. We just wrote Beowulf the way we wanted it to be. Once Bob Zemeckis said, "Guys, I think we’re going to try for a PG-13", the main agenda became take out the word "fucking" wherever it occurred, however many times it occurred on that page, and any other word that happened to resemble it. We went in and modified it. And then, of course, the first time we met Ray Winston, who had just read the first draft of the script, he went, "You know lads? You’ve done a great job on the script. I loved it. But you know what I really liked? All the swearing!" And we had to say, "We’ve just been over there taking it all out."
Avary: To which he responded "Oh, fuck!"
Gaiman: (Long pause) But… so we tried. But we’ll see–
Avary: (To me:) You’re right. It is kind of an Odd Couple routine. (To Neil:) Sorry.
Gaiman: (Longer pause) Oh, my god, I’m Felix. (Laughter) But I think what we tried to do… it is obviously a movie for adults that some young teens could handle comfortably. I kind of wish you had the English 15 certificate, because really I kind of think of it as a 15 certificate movie. But you don’t have that; you have PG-13 and NC-17. And we have to go on to the next table.
Beowulf hits theaters November 16, 2007.